That Pink Slip Is Showing—Again

Publish date:
Updated on

When you get the ax, colleagues start treating you like a SARS carrier. In the days after Tola Murphy-Baran found out she was being restructured out of her job running part of the NFL's media operations, she felt shunned. Colleagues would avert eye contact in the hallway or balk rather than enter an elevator she had just entered.

"People avoid you; they don't want to talk to you," she said. And, while some believed the worst of the slump was over, her experience and new statistics suggest that's sadly not true.

A layoff-tracking study updated last week by Challenger Gray & Christmas found that media companies terminated 2,244 workers during April. That's five times the number cut just the month before (360) and four times the number during April 2002.

Pay network Showtime is whacking 70 employees, while Home Box Office is axing 20. Equipment vendor Tektronix has set more layoffs, and Comedy Central affiliate sales, advertising and programming staffers are bracing for the coming takeover by MTV Networks. PBS stations are cutting staff after weak fundraising results, and Sinclair Broadcasting stations is slicing workers as the station group centralizes its newscasts.

For a while, employers slowed the pink-slip pace. Now it appears from the data, the really bad times are making a comeback.

Worse, employment data show that the one sector that had been adding thousands of workers—cable systems—has dried up. At a time when networks, TV and radio stations, and studios were battered by the 2000 dotcom crash, the recession, the crunch from consolidation, and 9/11, MSOs added 30,000 workers to sell and install new digital and Internet services.

Now, though, cable operators' workforce is beginning to shrink. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that, since December, systems have dropped 5,000 workers from an all-time high of 239,200 workers. Charter, Comcast and Adelphia are doing the most shuffling of workers.

The numbers, however, paint a bleaker picture than media executives do.

"We are seeing a real interest in revenue-generating positions," said Michele James, CEO of New York-based media headhunter James & Co. "There are a lot of sales positions that were cut and haven't been backfilled" that companies are now starting to replenish. The same goes for marketing managers.

Media companies are not hiring finance or other administrative staffers, he said.

"For the first time in two years, we're replacing people that are leaving," said a senior executive at one major media conglomerate. "That's a major improvement. And remember, those people are going to other companies that are hiring."

Murphy-Baran who until April 30 was the NFL's senior vice president of market development, remains upbeat; she's even taking yoga lessons. "I've been on this treadmill rat race for a lot of years. I think it's going to be a lengthy search."

Challenger Gray counts 59,245 layoffs by media companies since January 2001. The media slump long predated 9/11, with media companies axing 5,000 to 8,000 per month between May and August 2001.